A NASA flight director has revealed that personnel on the ground knew in 2003 that the Space Shuttle Columbia would not likely survive re-entry, but chose not to inform the vessel’s crew. According to an ABC News report from Thursday, when faced with the choice of letting the astronauts die trying to come home or leaving them to orbit until their air ran out, high-ranking NASA officials chose to let the Columbia crew die in ignorance of what was to befall them.
Wayne Hale, who became a Space Shuttle program manager in the years after the Columbia disaster, wrote on his blog Thursday about the meeting among ground personnel at Johnson Space Center as they grappled with the decision. Video of Columbia’s takeoff showed a briefcase-sized chunk of foam breaking off an engine and colliding with the shuttle’s wing, gouging a hole in the shield designed to protect the craft from the furious heat generated as it crossed from the vacuum of space into the atmosphere.
When it became clear that the orbiter was seriously damaged and likely wouldn’t survive re-entry, Flight Director Jon Harpold said to Hale and others at the meeting, “You know, there is nothing we can do about damage to the TPS (Thermal Protection System). If it has been damaged it’s probably better not to know. I think the crew would rather not know. Don’t you think it would be better for them to have a happy successful flight and die unexpectedly during entry than to stay on orbit, knowing that there was nothing to be done, until the air ran out?”
On Feb. 3, 2003, engineers and managers watched helplessly as the vehicle broke up into a trail of fireballs in the upper atmosphere, killing all 7 astronauts on board. The crew was made up of five men and two women, David Brown, Rick Husband, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Michael Anderson, William McCool and Ilan Ramon.
The surviving children of the astronauts will take part in a commemorative ceremony to be held on the 10th anniversary of the accident on Friday.
UPDATE: [Ed. note: The original headline of the piece reflected more scientific certainty than was available at the time of the explosion and has been updated to better reflect the scientific uncertainty with which scientists and engineers struggled. The complete quote from Hale’s journal of the incident is as follows,